CALVERT CITY – The phone call came from Tom Vasseur’s brother, Roy. Roy’s brother-in-law, a former Marine who served in the Korean War, had died in West Virginia and the family wanted a funeral with military honors.
Coincidentally, Tom had proposed the creation of an honor guard at a recent meeting of Calvert City Post 236 of the American Legion, where the brothers are members.
The idea had met with some interest, but by no means had substantial action been taken.
“Do you think we can get that team together?” Roy Vasseur asked.
Tom – who like Roy had served in the Navy, and then converted his status to Kentucky Army National Guard, in which he retired – responded to the request with a can-do attitude not unusual among various bands of brothers, whether they are blood relatives or not.
Roy Vasseur said he had five volunteers in West Virginia who would participate, each with a rifle to fire. In Marshall County, veterans Ronald Ford, Norval McCoy and Buddy McCoy agreed to help out.
“We borrowed two rifles from Neal McWaters,” Tom Vasseur said. “We didn’t have any blanks, so we got some 30.06 ammunition, pulled the bullets out of the shells and pinched the brass together to make blanks.”
The rifles were M1903 Springfields, of World War I vintage.
“We didn’t have any uniforms. We wore black slacks, white shirts and Legion caps” – or, in some cases, borrowed VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) caps, Vasseur said. “I wore my Class A Army uniform,” he added.
“We went down to the Calvert City Cemetery and rehearsed one time,” he said.
Then, the men went to West Virginia – and started a tradition.
“The next week,” Vasseur said, “Filbeck, Cann & King [Funeral Home] called and asked us if we could provide honors at a funeral.”
Today, William A. Doyle Post 236 boasts an Honor Guard with some 20 members, all veterans of the Korean and Vietnam eras, who regularly perform military honors at the funerals of veterans whose families request it. Tom Vasseur serves as commander of the unit.
Since that first one three years ago, Post 236 has provided military rites at 143 funerals.
“We started three years ago,” said Robert Chandler, an Air Force veteran, now commander of Post 236. “We thought that every veteran in western Kentucky should have a military funeral that wanted one, for their family and especially for the veteran and for what he did for our country.”
Military honors, including the firing of a 21-gun salute, are something Chandler felt his father deserved and did not get. The criteria for the military services to provide an honor guard require that the deceased veteran hold the rank of lieutenant colonel (or commander in the Navy), or be a retiree with at least 20 years active duty, or be a Medal of Honor winner.
For other veterans, the military will send on request a three-member detail to present a flag to the family of the deceased.
“We just felt like, regardless of whether they served 20 years, or four, or whatever, if they served in the armed forces and especially if they went overseas, we think they ought to get it,” Chandler said.
The service includes a rifle with bayonet stuck into the ground at the head of the grave with dog tags and a helmet placed on the stock; a 21-gun salute by a team of seven shooters with M1 Garand rifles; the playing of Taps by a bugler; and precise folding of the flag for presentation to the veteran’s next of kin.
Randy Shoda, who lives near Fairdealing, has been a member of the Post 236 Honor Guard for two years. He served in an honor guard during his time in the Army during the Vietnam War.
“It’s a privilege to do this,” he said. “We get a real feeling of pride to do something for a fallen veteran, to commemorate his contribution to the freedom of our country. It doesn’t matter if he died in combat or not.”
There is an explanation, usually done by Chandler or Post 236 Chaplain George Culp, of the meaning of the military rites.
“Anytime you see a rifle in the ground on the field, it represents a fallen soldier,” Chandler said. “We do that regardless of whether they gave their life for their country. We feel like that’s part of it.”
It all fits in with the Legion’s mission of service to community – primarily to veterans and to active-duty military and their families, but to others as well.
“We help in any way we can,” Chandler said, noting that Post 236 has worked to help victims of this year’s floods, to aid families who suffer losses in house fires or other such incidents, and on behalf of families of the Benton-based National Guard unit which recently deployed to Iraq.
Serving at funerals has been one of the most visible presences of the Calvert City post, along with other public exhibitions which followed. The unit is now the centerpiece of events held at Mike Miller Park on Memorial Day and Veterans Day and as part of the Wreaths Across America ceremony.
It also has performed in other events, such as the Flag Day observance and Christmas Parade in Benton, the Fourth of July parade in Calvert City and other occasions.
“Our Honor Guard has done a very good job,” Chandler said. “They really look sharp. We’ve got good uniforms. The men are all volunteers. Even when it’s hot, raining, cold or whatever, they volunteer. I’m very proud of them.”
The opportunity to serve has fueled growth in the post’s membership, from 44 to more than 100 in the first year after the Honor Guard was established, Vasseur said. “And it’s still growing,” he said.
Ford and the McCoy brothers were not even members of Post 236 until they were asked to participate in the original honor guard.
Shoda noted that the guard members maintain a professional military appearance, right down to spit-shined shoes.
“We try to be as sharp looking and well dressed as possible,” he said. “It’s not just getting up there and putting on a show and shooting.”
Ford echoed that sentiment.
“You bet we take it serious,” he said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be out there in all kinds of weather.”
“It’s not a thing we do lightly or for any glory,” Shoda said. “It’s for the veteran.”